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Williams v. Beard

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

May 23, 2013

Kevin Williams, a/k/a Kirby Stewart, Appellant
v.
Jeffrey A. Beard, et al., & Department of Corrections, SCI-Somerset

Submitted: March 13, 2013

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge

OPINION

BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge.

Kevin Williams, a/k/a Kirby Stewart, appeals, pro se, from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County (trial court), which granted the motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by Jeffrey A. Beard and the Department of Corrections (DOC) (collectively, Appellees). The trial court dismissed Williams's complaint pursuant to Section 6602(e) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (Act), [1] which permits a court to dismiss a proceeding if the litigation is frivolous or malicious. We reverse and remand.

On August 2, 2011, Williams filed a complaint against Appellees seeking $71.47 in damages. The complaint alleges the following facts. In October 2009, Williams resided at the SCI-Somerset, where officers damaged his footlocker during a contraband search. Williams showed the damaged footlocker to the prison's chief officer, who said he would "make a note of it." Complaint ¶ 5. Williams then filed a grievance, but it was denied without anyone visiting his cell or examining the footlocker. Williams appealed to the Facility Manager, who upheld the decision. Williams appealed to the Secretary's Office of Inmate Grievances and Appeals, which also upheld the decision. On March 17, 2010, officials transferred Williams to Michigan, at which time officials confiscated his footlocker because of its damaged state.

In his complaint, Williams sought a replacement footlocker or replacement costs for a comparable footlocker. Appellees filed an answer and, subsequently, a motion for judgment on the pleadings seeking to have the case dismissed as frivolous.

The trial court found the complaint to be frivolous because Williams sought only $71.47 in damages: $33.49 for a new footlocker and $37.98 for shipping. Because Williams sought less compensation than the filing fee of $75.00 and had no additional meaningful nonmonetary interest, the trial court found that a reasonable paying litigant would not have filed the same claim and dismissed the complaint as frivolous.

Williams appealed to this court, arguing that the trial court erred by dismissing his claim as frivolous. We agree.

The Act provides indigent prisoners with an opportunity to file prison conditions litigation.[2] Being mindful of this legislation's potential to burden an already overstressed court system, lawmakers included Section 6602 of the Act, which requires a court to dismiss prison conditions litigation if the court determines that the "litigation is frivolous or malicious or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted . . . ." 42 Pa. C.S. § 6602(e). See also Jae v. Good, 946 A.2d 802, 807 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008).

In dismissing Williams's claim, the trial court relied on its own previous decisions, along with the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080 (3d Cir. 1995), which analyzed Section 1915 of the Federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1915.[3] That section, like 42 Pa. C.S. § 6602(e), provides that "the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that . . . the action or appeal . . . is frivolous or malicious." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i). In Deutsch, a prisoner sued on his claim that guards took writing pens worth $4.20.

The Deutsch court noted that the federal statute does not define the term "frivolous, " and that in enacting Section 1915, Congress was concerned about overwhelming the courts with abusive claims. The court concluded that the legislative intent was not to use the term frivolous "in a legal sense only, "[4] i.e., limited to claims which were legally or factually meritless, and adopted a broad definition which included the more commonplace meaning "of little or no weight, value or importance …." 67 F.3d at 1085. Thus, the court held that "a court may dismiss an in forma pauperis claim as frivolous if, after considering the contending equities, the court determines that the claim is: (1) of little or no weight, value, or importance; (2) not worthy of serious attention; or (3) trivial." Id. at 1082. The court went on to define this standard for federal district courts:

To find that an in forma pauperis litigant's claim is trivial, a court must be satisfied that the record supports a finding that a reasonable paying litigant would not have filed the same claim after considering the costs of suit. Accordingly, the court must first find the actual amount in controversy under the claim presented and determine whether the amount in controversy is less than the expense of the court costs and filing fees. If the court so determines, then the claim is a candidate for dismissal as frivolous under [Section 1915].
. . . .
The court must next determine whether the litigant has a meaningful nonmonetary interest at stake under the claim, such that service of the complaint and an allocation of the court's resources for its adjudication is warranted, ...

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